by Lisa Y. Henderson
“Dave Dickinson or Dickerson (ca. 1790-after 1850) was a black plasterer and bricklayer active in the Albemarle region in the early 19th century who spent much of his life as an enslaved artisan but was manumitted late in his life. He worked for a planter clientele wealthy enough to build houses with plastered walls. Because of the records kept by these clients and their use of Dickinson’s full name (rather than just a first name as was the case for many enslaved artisans), an unusual amount of his work is documented. There are numerous references to artisans named Dave and Davy, Dickinson and Dickerson, probably referring to the same man but possibly to two different men.
“The first references to Dave Dickinson appear in the memorandum books kept by planter James C. Johnston when he was building his Hayes Plantation House near Edenton. Johnston recorded many payments to workmen, usually by name and only rarely by task, and did not generally distinguish between enslaved and free workmen. Among Johnston’s payments to artisans are those to Dave Dickinson in 1816 and 1817, some as small sums, others as ‘wages’ of $30 and more. Johnston did not identify Dickinson’s trade, but he may have been involved in plastering. During the spring and summer of 1817, Dickinson was at work along with Benjamin French, a plasterer who had come from New York to execute the refined plasterwork at Hayes.
“A plasterer named Dave Dickerson — probably the same man — was mentioned by Chowan County planter Clement Blount in 1837. Blount and his cousin Ebenezer Pettigrew of Tyrrell County were both in need of plasterers. Blount wrote to Pettigrew on June 6, 1837, that he had obtained ‘the promise of Dave Dickerson to go on the 15th July if nothing turns up to prevent him. I think he is industrious and will do the work well.’ In the meantime, Blount was looking out for another plasterer. ‘The fellow Jack Moody [?] I was telling you of I did not know who had the control of him, I have since been informed the Brandy bottle controls him.’ Two months later, Blount had had no success. While waiting to see if Dickerson had finished ‘Mr. [James?] Johnston’s work,’ Blount visited Johnston’s house ‘to see if he was done, and he has not done one stroke of work there yet and has gone to Washington County to Plaster a House for Mr. Harrison at Lees Mills, which is treating you and myself very ill.’ (Blount decided to employ another plasterer, Benjamin Balfour.) In a time when skilled artisans were scarce, even such wealthy and influential men as Blount and Pettigrew were often at the mercy of workmen such as Dickinson, who served a far-flung planter clientele according to his own schedule.
“Dave Dickinson was evidently enslaved for most of his life, but operated almost as a free man. An intriguing entry in the United States census of 1840 listed in Edenton one David Dickinson who, according to the check marks on the census form, was head of a household that included no free people, white or of color, but four slaves — the total number of people cited for the household. Three members of the household were occupied in manufacturing or a trade. It is possible though unusual that the census taker might list a slave household in this way, perhaps thus identifying the household of a well known person living essentially as a free man. (There are also a few other heads of households listed in Edenton in the same census in which no free persons are included, and the total number of household members is the same as the number of enslaved people. Whether these listings were errors or actually represented households of enslaved persons is unknown.)
“In 1846, Joseph D. Bond of Chowan County petitioned for the emancipation of ‘a negro slave known by the name of Davy Dickinson,’ who was then aged 50 and had maintained a good character and given meritorious service. The court granted the petition in 1847. The United States Census of 1850 listed in Edenton a free black bricklayer named Davy Dickerson, aged 60, owner of $200 worth of real property, and with no family members listed as free people. (He may have been living alone or may have had a family who were still enslaved). How long he lived as a free man or who his family members were is not yet known.”
Author: Catherine W. Bishir. Published 2009.
As published in North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary, http://ncarchitects.lib.ncsu.edu (All rights retained.) This web site is a growing reference work that contains brief biographical accounts, building lists, and bibliographical information about architects, builders, and other artisans who planned and built North Carolina’s architecture.